KEVIN DAVIS: We return from our holiday sabbatical with a buried gem from 1979’s Armed Forces: the underrated, understated “Green Shirt.” Indeed, this song feels like one of those quintessential deep cuts that’s bound to pass you by the first few times through; it’s kind of fleeting and minimalist for an album stacked with so many instantly satisfying, hook-laden pop songs (that it’s sequenced right after “Oliver’s Army,” arguably the most irresistible melody of Elvis’s early catalog, doesn’t help), and compared to their explosive display on This Year’s Model, it’s tough not to feel at first like the Attractions are a little underused on this track. Pushed along primarily by Elvis’s palm-muted power chords, with only sporadic accents from bass and drums, “Green Shirt” has a sketch-like quality to it that on the surface feels almost too raw for the bright, uptempo pop of Armed Forces, yet in the end also possesses a nervous energy that continues to sneak up on you in unexpected ways long after songs like “Accidents Will Happen” have been fully committed to memory. Jorge, was this an instant favorite for you, or did it also take you some time to feel like you really “got it?”
“Green Shirt” carries a far mightier impact than its modest presentation might suggest
JORGE FARAH: Because I approached Elvis Costello’s discography from such a skewed angle (my first record of his being 2002’s When I Was Cruel, then kind of zig-zagging through his catalog), I’d already made up my mind about the kind of EC songs I liked by the time I finally made it to Armed Forces. I liked the bigger, more dramatic numbers, with huge piano swells and sweeping choruses. I favored songs like “Man Out of Time” (a masterpiece of pop grandeur), “Episode of Blonde” (which turns from jagged, angular verses into a large-scale dramatic chorus) and “It’s Time” (a downright cinematic heart-on-sleeve belter which, wouldn’t you know it, we’ve written about before). So the first time I came upon “Green Shirt”’s steady, quieter, pulsing backbeat and controlled paranoia, it didn’t immediately jump out at me. It was only after a good amount of listening that I started to warm up to its charms: the tumbling alliteration in its lyrics, the strikingly vivid imagery in the language, and the maddeningly catchy refrain. As you said, the Attractions aren’t going on full blast like they were on “No Action” or “Lipstick Vogue,” but this song’s quieter, steadier pace works as a showcase for a different side of their playing. I think each Attraction gets a chance to shine here, with Steve Nieve getting to apply a broader range of colors in the verses, Pete’s stuttering snare blasts punctuating the moments where the tension in the song sounds like it’s about to explode, and Bruce’s bass anchoring it all (by the way, this may be my favorite bass sound on any Attractions album). Eventually the song became one of my all-time favorites, and one I would point to as a showcase of Elvis’s penchant for deceivingly simple little pop tunes that manage to carry a much mightier impact than their modest presentation would initially suggest.
This is one of the few early Costello songs that fulfills the “punk” label that erroneously dogged him
KEVIN DAVIS: I agree with all of that — first with the point about the imagery, which to me leaps out far more than does any sort of narrative or underlying theme that I latch onto in any meaningful way. Like so many early EC songs, it’s good for one-liners and quotables (my personaly favorite is “somewhere in the Quisling Clinic/there’s a shorthand typist choosing seconds over minutes”), and is performed with enough conviction to bridge the gap between that and a full-fledged story (something like “Battered Old Bird” for instance). And I also relate to what you’re saying about this song showcasing a different side of the Attractions’ playing; in fact, for as much as their reputation as telepathic virtuosos somewhat precedes them, it’s probably not a coincidence that when I make that mental list of their top performances, it’s songs like this, “New Lace Sleeves,” “Poor Fractured Atlas,” etc. that come to mind—songs where the elements of restraint form their own sort of arrangement, anchored on what’s not played as opposed to what is. Something that strikes me about “Green Shirt” is that, compositionally, it’s one of the few songs from Elvis’s early catalog that fulfills the “punk” label that somewhat erroneously dogged him early on in his career; the bare bones of the song, with its muted and downstroked power chords, very much fit within punk’s structural DNA, even if some of the other aesthetic signifiers of the genre are less evident. The contrast between this fairly straightforward guitar rhythm and the more judiciously dispersed drum and bass flourishes are ultimately what give the song its character, and what keeps the song feeling and sounding exciting and even a little unpredictable, even as I know now exactly what’s going to happen in it.
Nobody but Elvis Costello could have written this song
JORGE FARAH: Not only is it a fun song to listen to because it showcases a different side of The Attractions, it also manages to cover a lot of ground in its modest runtime. Like much of Armed Forces, it mixes the personal with the political, touching on the reductionism of television news, surveillance of citizens, and sexual anxiety (“you can please yourself but somebody’s going to get it”). It is a wryly humorous, wickedly clever song from an era where Elvis had become an absolute master at sneaking pointed messages into catchy pop ditties. And it’s also unmistakably Elvis Costello; that is to say, nobody else could have written this song, even in a year when many of his contemporaries were scrambling to cobble together some pop hooks and busy wordplay. Nobody could do what he did so deftly and effortlessly.
And so “Green Shirt” is added to the ever-expanding wardrobe that is our Elvis Costello Songs Of The Week playlist. Enjoy: